HAVERFORD TWP., Pa. - Residents of a Delaware County community say they have serious concerns about what's getting dug up as new homes go up on an old industrial site next to their backyards.
And then there's the smell. FOX 29's Jeff Cole has this report.
When the heavy equipment began ripping at the earth for construction of new homes last spring on an old industrial brownfield in Haverford Township, neighbors got a whiff of a nasty smell.
"All summer it was terrible," resident Eugene Wieczorek said. "You could not go out in the backyard. My wife has been having migraines. Other neighbors have been sick. And it's like standing in front of an open can of kerosene. After a few minutes, your head can start to spin, and there's nowhere to go."
During a meeting in May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assured neighbors that the odors posed no immediate threat to them or the environment.
But this wasn't the first, or last, sign of trouble.
Industrial uses go back nearly a century on the triangular property at the end of Harvard Road. Sitting along an old railroad line, it has been an asphalt plant and heating oil depot.
The site was cleaned up during the 1990s, and underground storage tanks were pulled by 2002.
When Harvard Road Development LLC, led by Jeffrey Steigerwalt, acquired the property in March 2013, eight homes were proposed on almost three acres.
Plans were approved in 2014 for a seven-home cul-de-sac.
By year's end, the property was flipped for $690,000 almost five times what it had cost.
New owner Harvard Seven LLC, represented by Kevin Hillsinger, began digging last spring, and that's when that oily sheen appeared on water pooling at the site.
Folks tell us their neighborhood started to smell like a gas station.
Resident David Freed told us, "We have young children. Normally, you want to play out back or sit out on the patio and cookout over the summer, and we have not done that because of the fumes and the odors and the burning eyes, the itchy throat, the hoarseness, the things that happen, you know?"
Plans already called for vapor barriers and vents in the new homes due to earlier tests showing gases and odors could seep inside.
Hillsinger halted building, brought in consultants to dig more test pits and started moving dirty soil to landfills, although some sat in piles for months.
Neighbors were curious where some of the dump trucks were going. So, they followed one with a video camera rolling and watched a load get dumped at a curbing project in another neighborhood.
Township officials say that contractor was actually doing work for them, and it's believed what the contractor picked up was actually clean fill. But they had it hauled back to be safe.
Then, in November, more trouble. Neighbors saw a construction crew pumping water through a silt or filter bag, apparently to remove sediments.
Video showed the water running into the tributary of a nearby creek.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection opened an investigation but couldn't immediately say what happened.
"That's an enforcement action, that's confidential, at this point," said Cosmo Servidio, Southeast Regional Director of the Department Of Environmental Protection.
"So, you're investigating that for a possible penalty?" Cole asked.
"Correct," Servidio said.
"For the developer, because of what happened there?" Cole asked.
"Correct," Servidio said.
Late last week, we learned that property owner Harvard Seven was hit with a $5,500 fine by the state. In the settlement agreement, the company admitted it failed to stop the runoff and to immediately report it.
Activist resident Freed calls the fine "a joke."
All of these issues led to a meeting in DEP's Norristown offices on a frigid January day.
FOX 29 Investigates was outside, camera rolling, as the parties gathered.
In a "site characterization report," Harvard Seven appears to have been surprised by the environmental problems at the site, writing it "had no information that suggested the conditions that were ultimately encountered."
But they claim to be moving ahead, arguing:
- Thousands of tons of material, including tar-impacted soils, have been removed;
- One home is standing, although it's not finished or occupied;
- Five others are under agreement of sale.
The DEP warns Harvard Seven needs to remediate. That may involve removing more soil and collecting additional samples – even where the home was already built – to show they meet statewide health standards.
Neighbors remain deeply concerned.
When Cole introduced himself, Haverford Township Ward 7 Commissioner James McGarrity said, "I know who you are, Jeff."
Residents claim McGarrity has been unresponsive since the problems arose. He had little time for us after the big meeting at the DEP broke up.
"Commissioner, the residents believe that they have not been treated fairly," Cole said. "They're very concerned that you're not representing them in a way that you should."
"Well, you need to talk to the state representative, I'm the township representative," McGarrity said.
"But, do you think that you've done a good job in terms of representing their concerns, commissioner?" Cole asked.
"I've been elected seven times, yes," McGarrity answered.
Hillsinger, the builder, wasn't talking at all. He jumped in his truck and drove off when we tried to question him.
We also spotted, Steigerwalt, the prior landowner. He says he'll live in one of the new homes, and Hillsinger reportedly will, too.
Steigerwalt pointed to earlier cleanups and says prior testing "looked like it was fine."
"Well, let's put it this way: If I thought at the beginning that there was an issue moving forward, I wouldn't have developed the site," Steigerwalt said.
Speaking with Wieczorek in the sideyard of his Washington Avenue home, Cole asked, "Bottom line, what's your concern. Is your concern that this may be in fact an environmental hazard that's happening here that may be stirred up by all that's going on here?"
"Yes, exactly. There's a – where's the smell coming from? And is that dangerous for my wife and my children?" Wieczorek replied.
Residents may get some answers. They want to know more about "suspected coal ash" captured in photos taken by the DEP in January.
The ash, a byproduct of burning coal, is considered solid waste and can contain potentially toxic heavy metals.
Coal use on the site wasn't mentioned in an environmental report done before Harvard Seven bought the land.
Dust blowing from excavated dirt piles left uncovered has neighbors again begging for air monitors, especially before more digging near their homes to see how far contamination goes.
A resident's tip to the township almost two years ago about "oozing tar" on the stream's banks never reached the DEP.
Not all are convinced the department has done enough.
FOX 29 has found a complaint filed in November with Pennsylvania's Inspector General on behalf of neighbors. It claims the DEP "is improperly handling the monitoring and communication of environmental concerns with the citizens."
Neighbors have hired an attorney and may take their battle to court.
"There's just a feeling of lack of accountability and oversight, and it feels like the residents are being neglected," Freed said.
The local state representative, who leads an environmental committee, says the site is getting the proper attention, and adds the DEP project manager has been there 21 times.
Residents remain deeply skeptical, especially over the plan to remediate, or continue to clean the site, lot by lot.
By the way, the last lot was being shopped for a half-million bucks, Cole reported.